Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: When Phnom Penh Rocked

Before the Khmer Rouge take-over, Phnom Penh was a happening city, particularly if you were a musician. Once their reign of terror commenced, the city was the worst possible place to be from, especially for musicians. The few surviving veterans of the Phnom Penh music scene reflect on the lives and culture lost during the period of Maoist mass murder in John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at Film Forum.

Frankly, it is a revelation just what a swinging good time it was in the capitol city during the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the early 1970s. There was a healthy nightlife, creating beaucoup jobs for musicians and singers. There was Pen Ran, who specialized in the sort of cute pop stylings you could also find on the American charts in the early sixties. Everyone loved Ros Serey Sothea, because she was the country girl that made good. Actually, the early stages of her career were a little rocky, but everything fell into place when she joined forces with popular bandleader Sinn Sisamouth.

Stylistically, Cambodian rock and pop followed a similar development pattern as it did in the west, except maybe not quite as heavy. Regardless, Pou Vannary made her name with hit covers of western songs, incorporating both the original English lyrics and Khmer translations. The scene rocked, but it looks and sounds like star vocalists often still fronted full bands, which was cool. Of course, we know it will end in incomprehensible tragedy and death.

DTIF is at its best surveying the Cambodian rock scene, giving viewers a good sense of each artist’s personal sound. Unfortunately, Pirozzi’s devotes a lot of time to an overly simplistic rehashing of early 1970s history. It is problematically reductive to say America bombed Viet Cong in Cambodia, therefore Pol Pot necessarily killed two million people. After all, a Communist conquest was exactly what the American government wanted to avoid.

Regardless, when Pirozzi sticks with the music and the oral history of survivors, DTIF is on rock-solid ground. Especially moving is the sequence chronicling Cheam Chansovannary’s radio performance of “Oh! Phnom Penh” when the city was finally recolonized after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

One striking aspect of DTIF is just how much of the music has survived, at least when compared to the almost entirely devastated Cambodian cinematic heritage. Watching Davy Chou’s masterful documentary Golden Slumbers will give audiences a sense of how average Cambodians deeply mourn the loss of their beloved movies on a personal level. While Chou’s elegant elegy is the considerably superior film, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is still well worth seeing when it opens tomorrow (4/22) in New York, at Film Forum.